Activism and Reform
“The cruel usage which many women have locked up in their own bosoms would make our ears tingle, and our blood both chill and boil.” —“Pi,” Workingman’s Advocate, 1844
Mill girls were major contributors to the prosperity of the mills, but between the 1830s and 1860s, their wages did not keep pace with industry growth or the standards set in other workplaces. Even in the early, more lucrative days, women organized strikes and walkouts to demand higher wages, a shorter workday, and better conditions. The groundbreaking “turn-out” at Lowell in February 1834 represented the rising power of the mill girls to withdraw their labor in the face of a wage slash. Mill owners responded to the mill girls’ rising political consciousness by calling them unfeminine and ungrateful workers. Though the turnout failed to prevent the wage cut, it brought public attention to the mill girls’ cause and set a precedent for future reform efforts.
In 1836, female mill workers went on another strike, which lasted for several months. Learning from their first collective protest, the mill girls established the Factory Girls’ Association to redress their grievances. Another development in their political action was the forming of the Ten-Hour Movement. This movement was created to force the advent of a ten-hour workday for men and women factory workers. Activists such as Sarah G. Bagley and others spearheaded this campaign for a shorter workday, spreading their message in the Voice of Industry, the Subterranean United with the Working Man’s Advocate, the Lowell Offering, and the Factory Girl. These newspapers and periodicals heavily, if not exclusively, featured the writings of female operatives. Eventually, their collective efforts yielded reform associations, a constitution, legislative action, and other measures for improving the lives of the mill girls.